We are familiar with conflicts, loss, insult and rejection. Negative experiences are a part of interpersonal and community life, and we encounter these unpleasantries at some point or the other. Then what pushes some of us into the depths of depression?
There are several sound studies that indicate genetic vulnerability as a significant factor; fluctuations in hormones and neurotransmitters have proven to be responsible, and some researches even provide evidence that abuse or stress in childhood can cause depression. All of the above — with medication, drugs, social factors, financial trouble and isolation — are contributors.
Among them, the common fact is they are all beyond our control. So isn’t there anything one can do to get better?
By looking at intrapersonal factors or vulnerabilities within yourself, we can impact our lives more actively. There are certain thinking lifestyles we develop that make us more vulnerable to depression.
‘Man is a thinking animal’. Our ability to think has helped us survive and flourish. But, it has come at a cost.
We develop cognitive styles or patterns, out of habit, exposure, conditioning and in defence. How we think and what we think, lead us into believing, misconstruing and living our thoughts as reality. The good news is, we can change this.
Consider doing the following:
1. Differentiate between useless rumination and useful analytical thinking. Thinking too much about things we cannot help or change, leads to feelings of helplessness. I see this commonly in people with depression.
If your thoughts and ideas do not lead to timely action and function, it is rumination. Recognising that we are slipping into the pit of helplessness — with persistent thinking about others, their behaviour, circumstances, situations, the weather, the potholes on the road, etc. — and directing our focus towards constructive thinking can help.
2. Cognitive errors are ‘thought errors’ that we pick up as we go along. Believing that others’ actions are ‘meant to hurt you’, that ‘they hate you’, or that ‘you are unworthy’ of being loved, are examples of faulty thinking. Rational and flexible thoughts disputing such illogical beliefs, giving benefit of doubt, exploring the million reasons why one may have behaved in a certain manner, allows for healthier emotions.
3. Past orientation in thinking. One is not only unable to recover from the past, but also predicts the future based on it. It is a thinking style commonly found in cases of depression. ‘I did not pass that exam, I don’t think I ever will’, ‘I haven’t been able to keep a partner in the past, I don’t think I will ever manage one’ or ‘I have lost two jobs in the past, I think I will never be able to succeed’ are some examples.
By ceasing to define ourselves by our unchangeable history, abuse, trauma, loss or rejection in the past, and looking at our present and doing the best possible in the moment, can help with more functional emotions.
4. General, non-specific thinking, without clearly-defined goals can lead to clouding and dejection. Wishing and hoping for goals to be achieved, without sequential, detailed, specific thinking, defining steps to these goals, amounts to dreaming. Thinking and defining goals, outlining steps and reviewing progress can keep us constructively engaged.
5. Unrealistic expectations need to be kept in check. They can seriously damage self-esteem, because they set us and others up for failure. These will lead to us being constantly disappointed, feeling negative emotions, acting in negative ways. Some examples of unrealistic expectations are ‘people should agree with me’, ‘everyone should like me’ or ‘life should be fair to me’.
Healthy lifestyle choices can help with depression. While there is less motivation to exercise, just getting a slow-start can help. Exercise is the most effective antidepressant, not only releasing endorphins or pleasure hormones in our body, but also helping neural and brain health.
While substance use and alcohol often co-occur with depression, a zero alcohol policy needs to be followed when you have depression.
Depression is most certainly debilitating. But, prevention and management are not entirely out of our control. Some inner strength, conscious cognition and resolve in amending our lifestyles can help us banish the blues.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)